1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Development and solidarity: interview with Francine Mestrum

6 Jul 2011

You are listening to a podcast by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.

Francine Mestrum is a researcher, author and activist based in Brussels. She is involved in the World Social Forum and manages the website www.globalsocialjustice.com

Francine has been working with UNRISD on developing ideas about Universal Social Protection and has a new book out, currently available in Dutch, about Development and Solidarity.

There are many who criticize development cooperation policies, do these criticisms point to a need to change the approach to development?

I do share many of the criticisms because there are some serious problems with cooperation policies, but I do not share their conclusions because I think we need more solidarity and more cooperation – but not in the sense of nationally fragmented policies and in third world countries governments who are more accountable to their donors than they are to their populations. So that was the starting point to my book. I made a kind of stocktaking of what cooperation policies achieved in the last 50 years and to look at the criticisms, and then to say that we need more solidarity.

Would you agree with critics who argue that the current approach to development has lost its legitimacy?

Absolutely. If you look at sub-Saharan Africa – the Millennium Development Goals aim to reduce poverty by half by 2015 - if you look at the numbers for sub-Saharan Africa today, you see extreme poverty has doubled from 1981 to 2005. So Washington consensus policies clearly are not good for people - clearly are not good for reducing poverty. And my point is that you cannot reduce poverty, let alone eradicate it, if you only work at the level of the poor. Because if you are creating permanently more poverty - then of course you can try to help poor people but there’s an input of more poor people all the time. So you need to work at the level of your society, and even beyond your society to work at the level of your region or of the world. And that is why we are now more and more working on the idea of a universal social protection – for all people not only for poor people. Because the best social system is where everyone pays and everyone benefits. So it is a give and take. And I think that is what we should try to achieve. Not tomorrow but maybe the day after tomorrow.

What’s been the impact of the most recent financial crisis?

The crisis has changed a lot. And I think we can say that the current system is delegitimized. That doesn't mean that it is changed. We still have to make a step towards something different and something else. But within that, Financial Transaction Tax should find a place.

You’ve talked a bit before about the importance of taxation for development – can you explain why you think it is so vital?

I think that tax systems are in the very first place a tool for democracy. And that is not the way we usually look at taxes. Because people do not like taxes and think it is for public expenditures that do not help people. Whereas in fact taxes can be the main tool for linking governments up with their people and people linking up with their governments. It is a matter of accountability. If you pay taxes, you can ask your government, “what have you been doing with my money?”, and governments can say “we do this and that for you - public services, social policies - but you have to pay taxes in order to have them”. So taxes for me are at the core of national democracy and since we're living in a time of globalization and many goods are not taxed - mainly think of financial transactions - also to organize this globally to have a Financial Transaction Tax and that of course could be used for national taxes as well as the global taxes for global public goods. And since I’m working on poverty I think in the very first place of social protection – so beyond poverty, because another problem is that the poverty reduction policies that have been introduced for instance by the World Bank are not giving the results that were expected from them.

Has the financial crisis made it easier to talk about introducing global taxes?

Yes I definitely think so - at least the Tobin Tax, which was the very first idea, the currency transaction tax - the global Financial Transaction Tax is on the agenda. That does not mean that we will soon have it - but at least it is discussed. It is discussed in the European Union, where there are very serious budgetary problems - the EU has no money and national governments are not willing to pay more money. So that is another argument for organizing a Financial Transaction Tax. That will not go towards development - but at least if it happens it will be the very first time that we have a real international tax. And that could be a step towards something more, something different that could be used for social development.

What do you see as the relationship between globalization and development?

For me globalization can be synonymous with development. It is working at building one world where we are all equals. We have the same rights. That is for me a global world. And where we can travel if we want - not for surviving but because we want to travel. That is the whole problem with migration. And of course we are in a climate crisis and we have to tackle that as well which means first of all a problem for developed countries, because we have to change our paradigm if we want others to change theirs.

For UNRISD, this is Rheem Al-Adhami in Geneva.

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